“Griette” and the Siege of Ham
Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy (1404-1419) held much of Picardie, in what is now northern France. In the middle of the Hundred Years’ War, and with a weak line of kings on the throne, it was an era of fierce civil disorder in France, and John had made the most of it, making not a few enemies in the bargain. His principal foe was Count Bernard VII of Armagnac, father-in-law to Duke Charles of Orleans, son of Duke Louis, whom John had arranged to bump off in 1407.
In the early summer of 1411 a surprise offensive by the Armagnacs led to the loss of several of John’s towns the valley of the Somme. In August, John undertook a counter offensive, spearheaded by the “Great Bombard of Burgundy,” an enormous cannon named Griette.
Toward the end of August, John invested Ham, a fortified town on the Somme a few miles upstream from Amiens. It took a while to set Griette up, and presumably the Armagnac garrison and the townsfolk looked on with some interest. Finally the gun was ready. But the first shot actually flew over the town, falling into the Somme River behind it, certainly to the great relief of the defenders.
Undaunted, John ordered a second shot. Some hours later, since the piece took a long time to load, Griette again fired, and this time did a little better. Although the ball struck the ground in front of the walls, it nevertheless brought down a section of the parapet and a tower. Hours later a third shot also fell short, but also brought down more of the wall.
Duke John’s gunners immediately began preparing for a fourth shot. Figuring that the end was in sight, the defenders decided to give up.
The Unusual Military Career of Henry Root Hill
Henry Root Hill entered military service 1894, when the 18-year old enlisted in Company F, 4th Illinois, a unit of the state militia. By the time his regiment was mustered into federal service for the Spanish-American War, in 1898, Hill was the company First Sergeant. Although the regiment trained hard at the Chickamauga National Military Park, it didn’t go overseas. But Hill’s performance had been outstanding, and in 1899 he was commissioned. He rose steadily in the ranks of the state militia, which became an element of the National Guard in 1903. Meanwhile, taking over his father’s business, he became a prosperous furniture manufacturer. Commissioned a brigadier general in 1914, he took the 1st Brigade of the Illinois National Guard to the Mexican border in 1916, and performed well enough to impress a number Regular Army officers. The Illinois National Guard was mustered out of federal service very early in 1917. Almost literally weeks later, beginning in April, the troops were recalled to federal service for World War I, though they remained at a training camp in Illinois.
On July 2nd, the Illinois Guardsmen were hastily dispatched to quell the “East St. Louis Massacre,” during which rioting whites, protesting the employment of blacks in war industry, killed upwards of 100 African-Americans, and drove thousands more from their homes. Although they were supposed to be protecting the victims of the rioters, many of the troops proved indifferent to the plight of city’s black citizens, and some actually joined in committing atrocities. The resulting public outcry led to a formal inquiry, which Hill chaired, but which led to no formal recommendations. Shortly afterwards Hill was promoted to brigadier general in the “National Army.”
In August the Illinois Guardsmen were sent to Camp Logan, near Houston, Texas, where they were reorganized and formed into the 33rd “Prairie” Division. As a testimony to his competence, Hill retained command of his old brigade, now designated the 65th. Completing its movement to France on June 11th, by the 20th elements were training with the British in the Amiens sector, occupying portions of the trenches and taking part in several small operations. But then what National Guardsmen called the “West Point Protective Association” intervened. Hill was replaced as commander of the 65th Brigade, and offered a choice; he could accept a demotion to colonel and duty with the Service of Supply, or he could be discharged. Hill opted for a third way; saying that he preferred to be at the front in any capacity rather than in the rear, he accepted a commission as a major on August 29th, and was assigned to command a battalion in the 128th Infantry, a unit of his old brigade!
Hill led his battalion during the British offensive at Amiens on August 8, 1918, when the 33rd Division led the way by breaking the German lines at Chipilly Ridge and Gressaire Wood. A few weeks later the division was moved by rail to the U.S. First Army, and entered the lines near Verdun, relieving French troops. On September 26th, the 33rd Division formed the right of the U.S. III Corps at the onset of the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, still the largest, longest, and bloodiest field fight in American history.
On October 16th, Hill, then 42, was leading his battalion through a complex of German machine gun nests near Romagne-sous-Mont Faucon. Overcoming most of the enemy positions, Hill’s men were suddenly confronted by another machine gun nest, on their flank. Without hesitating, the major attacked the nest single-handed, killing three Germans, before being shot by a fourth. He died instantly, and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.